What does the Socialism-to-Capitalism transition feel like?

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets is available is available in an English translation. The transition of wealthy economies from a market economy (“Capitalism”) to a welfare state (“Socialism”) has apparently pretty painless for most citizens. Nearly half of the U.S. economy is now centrally-planned or taxpayer-funded and people pay their property tax, sales tax, gasoline tax, payroll tax, Medicare tax, income tax, etc. without complaining too much.

Alexievich interviewed people in former Soviet republics, including Russia, to find out what it was like to go in the other direction: from Socialism to a free-market Capitalism that demands much more of citizens than the U.S. or Western Europe.

Everything below is a quote from someone she interviewed:

Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves. I remember it well: After we finished school, we’d volunteer to go on class trips to the Virgin Lands, and we’d look down on the students who didn’t want to come.

So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life—life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries… Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption.

My wife and I graduated from the Philosophy Faculty of St. Petersburg (back then, it was Leningrad) State University, then she got a job as a janitor, and I was a stoker in a boiler plant. You’d work one twenty-four-hour shift and then get two days off. Back then, an engineer made 130 rubles a month, while in the boiler room, I was getting 90, which is to say that if you were willing to give up 40 rubles a month, you could buy yourself absolute freedom. We read, we went through tons of books. We talked. We thought that we were coming up with new ideas.

There were new rules: If you have money, you count—no money, you’re nothing. Who cares if you’ve read all of Hegel? “Humanities” started sounding like a disease.

There was so much love! What women! Those women hated the rich. You couldn’t buy them. Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb…

Before, I had hated money, I didn’t know what it was. My family never talked about it—it was considered shameful. We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist. Like everyone else, I would get my 120 rubles a month and that had been enough. … Back then, books replaced life… This was the end of our nightly kitchen vigils and the beginning of making money then making more money on the side. Money became synonymous with freedom. Everyone was completely preoccupied with it. The strongest and most aggressive started doing business. We forgot all about Lenin and Stalin. And that’s what saved us from another civil war with Reds on the one side and Whites on the other. Friends and foes. Instead of blood, there was all this new stuff… Life! We chose the beautiful life. No one wanted to die beautifully anymore, everyone wanted to live beautifully instead. The only problem was that there wasn’t really enough to go around…

The Soviet was a very good person, capable of traveling beyond the Urals, into the furthest deserts, all for the sake of ideals, not dollars. We weren’t after somebody else’s green bills. The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the Siege of Stalingrad, the first man in space—that was all us. The mighty sovok! I still take pleasure in writing “USSR.” That was my country; the country I live in today is not. I feel like I’m living on foreign soil.

Socialism isn’t just labor camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: Everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. They say to me that you couldn’t buy a car—so then no one had a car. No one wore Versace suits or bought houses in Miami. My God! The leaders of the USSR lived like mid-level businessmen, they were nothing like today’s oligarchs. Not one bit! They weren’t building themselves yachts with champagne showers. Can you imagine! Right now, there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for? Gilded doorknobs… Is this freedom? The little man, the nobody, is a zero—you’ll find him at the very bottom of the barrel.

A cult of money and success. The strong, with their iron biceps, are the ones who survive. But not everyone is capable of stopping at nothing to tear a piece of the pie out of somebody else’s mouth. For some, it’s simply not in their nature. Others even find it disgusting.

Did I believe in communism? I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to lie: I believed in the possibility of life being governed fairly. And today… as I’ve already told you… I still believe in that. I’m sick of hearing about how bad life was under socialism. I’m proud of the Soviet era! It wasn’t “the good life,” but it was regular life. We had love and friendship… dresses and shoes… People hungrily listened to writers and actors, which they don’t do anymore.

Everywhere you look, you see our new heroes: bankers and businessmen, models and prostitutes… managers… The young can adapt, while the old die in silence behind closed doors. They die in poverty, all but forgotten. My pension is fifty dollars a month…[ She laughs.] I’ve read that Gorbachev’s is also fifty dollars a month… They say that the Communists “lived in mansions and ate black caviar by the spoonful. They built communism for themselves.” My God! I’ve shown you around my “mansion”—a regular two-bedroom apartment, fifty-seven square meters. I haven’t hidden anything from you: my Soviet crystal, my Soviet gold…

The first thing to go was friendship… Suddenly, everyone was too busy, they had to go out and make money. Before, it had seemed like we didn’t need money at all… that it had no bearing on us. Suddenly, everyone saw the beauty of green bills—these were no Soviet rubles, they weren’t just play money. Bookish boys and girls, us house plants… We turned out to be ill suited for the new world we’d been waiting for. We were expecting something else, not this. We’d read a boatload of romantic books, but life kicked and shoved us in another direction.

More: read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

13 thoughts on “What does the Socialism-to-Capitalism transition feel like?

  1. Guess there was parallel USSR where the author lived. Unless she lived an worked during first years after communist revolution, I can not vouch for those.

  2. More realistic view on Soviet economy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_economy_of_the_Soviet_Union
    Most of the people I knew who were going to ‘Virgin Lands’ and such voluntarily did so because pay difference. Good engineer could make 200 – 250 rubles, skilled worker – 400 rubles, scientist – 500 rubles… Student who gone to Siberian railroad construction project could make 1000 rubles, those traveling to work on oil and gas projects significantly more. All numbers are per month. Someone who was repairing electronics (semi-legally) could make yet more, similar for those who did custom house repairs… It was a mirror world.

  3. Anonymous: The book was written nearly 100 years after the Communist revolution. The interviews are all from post-Soviet Russia/Ukraine/et al.

  4. philg, from collective-farm peasants who were selling much better quality produce from their small private lots than was available in government-run stores (it was an institution, to buy some produce you just had to go to a farmer market) to army officers and generals who used soldiers as drafted private workforce to heads of communist state who were collecting fancy cars, everyone participated in second economy. There could be people who did not but they were clear minority. Someone had to ask older people: where did you use to get potatoes, how capital repairs were made, how did you manage to fix that TV? Where did you get money to get it done?

  5. Anonymous: I see your point. The Soviet economy was never truly socialist! It sounds as though the real estate system was, though, and that’s a huge percentage of the typical person’s budget.

  6. Yes, to a large part. Utilities and public transport were heavily subsidized, while salaries were heavily depressed. But in could take decades to receive a government apartment. Some people never received them and lived in dormitories. So ‘co-op’ apartments we popular. It could take few years and always a nice some of money equal to several years of family annual income in cash up-front to build one, and a lot of wrangling with and ‘oiling’ of the builders. Queues for landline too could take an additional decade or two, people had to know how to work the system.

  7. Anonymous:

    I mostly agree with #6, while #4 and #2 are rather far divorced from reality, at least in the part of the former USSR I am most familiar with.

    Re. the Kazakhstan virgin lands.

    The folks who participated in the project were a mixed bag: some were ideologically motivated, some were trying to make a bit more money than at home, some were “rehabilitated” Gulag prisoners or Stalin deportees. I am not aware of the reliable numbers, but some sources claim that “zeks” constituted about 90% of the total workforce in 1954.

    Salaries in the virgin lands. The average salary in 1954-1960 was between 50 and 70 roubles (in the post 1960 monetary reform units). My uncle went to the area in 1955 and spent there I believe 5 years (not sure what his motivation was — never asked). According to him, the highest paying job there was that of the combine operator (harvester). It was a seasonal occupation and brought in about 120 roubles/month, or if you were willing to work 16hours/day, about 180 roubles/month. There was also a one time 100 rbl sign up bonus. After spending several years in pretty harsh working/living conditions, he came back with barely enough money to buy a motorcycle, not even a car.

    There was not much demand for non-farming skills in the virgin lands, so we can safely excise the 500 rbl scientist salary as irrelevant and probably mythical.

    Re. Student summer construction team (“stroiotryad”). I went to the Tyumen oil fields region once or twice in 70’s while at the university. Typical 2 month take home earnings were 1,500 roubles over the *two* month summer period. Which was probably ok taking into account that the averge salary then was about 120 roubles per month in the European part of the Soviet Union. Working/living conditions were pretty horrible.

    Re. Shadow economy.
    “everyone participated in second economy. There could be people who did not but they were clear minority”

    The overwhelming majority of my friends, acquaintances and relatives had barely any contact with it. In my estimation, the shadow economy probably constituted several percents of the country GDP, at least the time and the area I am familiar with. The primary reason for the possibly low shadow economy fraction is that this sort of activity was criminalized and severely repressed by the government. Plus the aforementioned people simply could not afford the shadow economy prices.

    “Someone had to ask older people: where did you use to get potatoes, how capital repairs were made, how did you manage to fix that TV? Where did you get money to get it done?”

    My grandparents who were both teachers (2×110 rbl/month) kept pigs and a vegetable garden to have enough food on their table. The pigs were slaughtered on a yearly basis in winter and the slaughterer was paid in kind. Occasionally, they bought a chicken at the farmers’ market. They simply could not afford to get food supplies from the farmer market on a regular basis.

  8. Second hand time is a terrific book as are her books on the soviet war in Afghanistan and the disaster at Chernobyl. Anyone who spent time in the FSU will recognize the attractive and unattractive aspects of that society.

  9. When reading her supposed interviews, please keep in mind that Alexievich is a habitual liar. She was taken to court by people she interviewed for her previous books, and only escaped punishment because the plaintiffs either died or ended up in a different state after the breakup of USSR.

    Growing up in Soviet Union in 1980s, I had to read quite a lot of Alexievich’s output. She was a rising star in the Young Communist’s League, and her books were pushed into the school program the year they were published. Her paean to Dzerzhinsky, a founder of Bolshevik’s secret political police, was sickening in its saccharine boot-licking servility. Alexievich’s subsequent supposedly documentary book on women who fought in WWII turned out to be a complete fabrication and was pulled from the shelves rather quickly.

  10. I’m reading “Farewell” (which was a code name for a very productive mole in the KGB for the DST French counterintelligence). In addition to the spy story it paints a picture of connected police state staffers, who lived fairly conventional lives, commuting to office jobs and bitching about their bosses. They were clearly separate and “above” the citizenry, able to buy modest rural properties and cars, but it was not an enviable lifestyle by Western standards.

  11. @Alex

    I’d not heard about Alexievich before someone recommended The Secondhand Time to me. I found the majority of her pre-90’s stories, whether real or invented, matching my own picture of the FSU world, more or less. Some stories, not so much.

    The Gulag survivors stories largely matched what little my great-uncle told me about his 15 year stint in the Kolyma resorts.

  12. Ivan, original post was not about Gulag survivors. It is about people nostalgic about live in former USSR. I think that overall you confirmed my experiences and communicated experiences of people I knew. I stated specifically that it is about people who traveled voluntarily, I do not expect ZK be nostalgic about former USSR either. All I want to add that Kazakhstan used to be way more corrupt than typical European ‘republic’ of former USSR I had have more experiences with, by description of my fellow Kazakh students who attended college in Moscow due to their inability to pay admission bribe in their native Kazakhstan and actions of people form there I had unlucky chance to observe.

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